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Multicasting: the practical engine that’s driving public TV’s digital transition

Overview: What is it, and how many channels does it add to public TV?

Repeats: The rationalists' preference for additional channels

Education: An offer that fits the mission and public policy

Online access: How Texas stations aim to bring new media to the outback

Local and regional programs: Hopes for coverage that's often squeezed out of public TV today

Specialized genres: Replicating the model that works for cable

Option 5: Specialized genres

Niche possibilities—the arts and Spanish, for example

Adapted from Current, April 22, 2002

Decisive moves more than two decades ago have rewarded ESPN, the Discovery Channel and other specialized programmers with comfortable niches, but the decentralized public TV system isn't known for synchronized risk-taking.

For that reason alone, it could be an uphill battle for advocates of multicast channels dedicated to specific genres. Still, there are cases to be made, for example, on behalf of two often-mentioned options with different public-service rationales and constituencies: arts programming and Spanish-language programming.


Arts and cultural programming is the only genre where public TV is still preeminent, says Paula Kerger, station manager of WNET, which has packaged a full-time regional arts channel, MetroArts/Thirteen, for cable in the New York area for more than three years.

As stations begin to think seriously about their multicast offerings, Kerger says, she wants to raise the possibility that they could pick up a variant on MetroArts as a channel or as the backbone of an arts channel they would create locally.

The channel draws on reruns of WNET's broadcast programs as well as performance arts footage from cooperating arts institutions. Last month's Mark Morris Dance Week, for example, brought together 23 dance-related programs, including national premieres, winners of a recent dance film festival and repeats from Great Performances, Egg and American Masters.

"This is the most magnificent survey of dance in America ever conceived by man or beast," says Michael Fields, president of WCNY in Syracuse. Fields' remark reflects his pride—he oversaw MetroArts when he worked at WNET as a production executive.

He's not sure how well the channel's economics would work in other regions.

"New York may be the only market where arts groups are rich enough to produce professional video of their own performances," Field says. But stations in smaller cities could take a national feed adapted from MetroArts and insert a local show every Friday night, as well as station-break promos for local arts events, he says.


When pubcasters brainstorm about DTV's potential, they often give a nod toward a major demographic trend, the growing Hispanic population and its special language needs.

"There's been a lot of talk and extremely little action," says Steve Graziano, manager of television program services at Nebraska Educational Telecommunications.

"Very few public television stations are making a concerted effort to reach out to non-English-speaking viewers."

At Milwaukee PTV, General Manager Ellis Bromberg endorses the idea of multicasting in Espanol. "I'd make a pitch for a channel to serve Hispanics, including some Spanish-language programming," he says. "I would put that on one of my multicast channels in a second."

A Spanish-language service would fit the mission of public TV, says Kerger of WNET. "We've had some conversations internally about what it would look like." But she doubts funding can be found to make Spanish one of the first multicast services on public DTV.

Some stations increasingly make an effort to air programming for Spanish speakers.

In Dallas, KERA is looking at the possibility of providing blocks of programming in Spanish, says Sylvia Komatsu, v.p. The station always looks into bilingual soundtracks when it does productions, she says, and it can call upon its ongoing partnership with Channel 11, the pubcaster in Mexico City. This spring, KERA produced separate Spanish and English debates between the two candidates for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, both Hispanic.

The Nebraska teleplex already makes a point of serving Spanish speakers on its NETV2 service on cable systems around the state. It carries the Spanish version of Sesame Street, Plaza Sesamo, plus SAP-channel auxiliary soundtracks of Clifford the Big Red Dog and Dragon Tales. For adults, there's Spanish-language news from German television, Europa Semanal and El Reportaje ZDF, and a parenting program from public TV station WYCC in Chicago, Nuestros Ninos. (PBS is now feeding Spanish SAP channels for Bookworm Bunch as well, Graziano notes.) Between programs, NET inserts public service announcements in Spanish that help newcomers with practical matters such as getting medical help or driver's licenses.

Though Nebraska's growing Spanish-speaking population may not hold the best-paying jobs — many are in agriculture and meat-packing — they often buy cable subscriptions to pick up the Spanish-language commercial networks Univision and Telemundo, according to Graziano.

In Atlanta, the city school system's WPBA has piloted a new local series in Spanish, Leyes Cotidianas, a sister program to its longtime weekly series Layman's Lawyer. Both explain practical legal issues and are underwritten by the Georgia Civil Justice Foundation. The project got going, says WPBA President Milton Clipper, when "the community said this is what we'd like to have."

Perhaps that's how Spanish could come to public DTV as well.

Steve Behrens


To Current's home page
Earlier article: Another niche—Syracuse station starts local cable channel devoted to how-to programming.
Outside link: WNET's MetroArts cable channel, which could become the core of a national arts channel.

Web page posted June 10, 2002
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